Is he the evil perpetrator of the deadliest terrorist attack in British history, or a sick old man, a loving father and grandfather, who has suffered a terrible miscarriage of justice? Abdul Baset Ali al-Megrahi put on a virtuoso performance when The Times of London came calling yesterday.
His house, in the Dimachk area of Tripoli, was not hard to find. Policemen stood guard outside. The road was lined with the BMWs of smartly dressed friends and relatives who had come to pay their respects. The high outer walls were festooned with fairy lights and with pictures of the Lockerbie bomber as he looked when he left Libya more than a decade ago. In the garden stood a marquee where he had evidently been welcomed home the previous night.
We sent in our business cards and waited, more in hope than expectation. But ten minutes later we were ushered into the spacious hall of the distinctly plush villa where chandeliers hung above a marble floor — a far cry from the Scottish prisons where al-Megrahi has spent the past eight years. His family bought the house a couple of years ago with help from the Libyan government.
The man himself was waiting in a reception room at the top of a wide and curving staircase; the curtains were drawn against the fierce afternoon sun and tropical fish swam in illuminated tanks.
He looked weak and grey, far older than his 57 years and scarcely recognizable as the man I last saw at his trial in the Netherlands in 2001. He was supporting himself on a walking stick. Like everyone else he wore flowing Arab robes of spotless white — “not what I wore in prison”, he joked in a soft voice and fluent English. He was seeing us, he explained, “because you came to our house. It is our culture.”
We sat on sofas. No tea was offered because it is Ramadan. To be free, he said, was “something amazing. I’m very, very happy.” When the doctors had told him he had just a few months left to live “this was my hope and wish — to be back with my family before I pass away . . . I always believed I would come back if justice prevailed”.
His mother, 86, had not stopped crying, he said. “I told her, ‘You should laugh, not cry’. She doesn’t know I’m ill.” He asked us not to tell her.
Engineers have rigged up a video link next to a large black plasma television so that al-Megrahi could talk to prison officers in Scotland every two weeks — one of the conditions of his release.
As al-Megrahi was flying home in one of Muammar al-Qaddafi's personal jets on Thursday, President Obama sought to add another condition. He said that al-Megrahi should live out his days under house arrest. Al-Megrahi laughed. “He knows I’m a very ill person. You know what kind of illness I have. The only place I have to go is the hospital for medical treatment. I’m not interested in going anywhere else. Don’t worry, Mr. Obama — it’s just three months.”